Description: The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.
Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction. (from back cover)
Review: While this is technically the first book in Bank's Culture series, I was told this wasn't the best place to start the series. Having now read it, I sort of agree. As an introduction to the Culture, this isn't really a good introduction, since we really don't spend much time with either any members of the Culture or with anyone who has spent any time with them.
On the other hand, this is a far better introduction to Culture Minds than The Player of Games, which is generally recommended as a starting point. So, while I wouldn't recommend starting here, it would be good idea to read it early.
As a book, this is a decent first effort, but it seems a bit padded in some areas, with the main protagonist running into difficulties, which seem to exist just to add difficulties and/or shock value. (A run in with a group who most of the members are trying to subsist on inedible things, while their leader is a cannibal is the most obvious example.) There are also several interludes focusing on a member of the Culture, which don't seem to add anything to the story.
It takes until page 300 of a 500 page book before the characters actually get anywhere near the actual objective of the book. And most of that time is spent introducing, then killing off various people the main character comes into contact with.
The book does have redeeming qualities. The story moves along at a decent pace, and there is a last minute save that could have felt like a cheat, but was set up just enough to come off as a surprise without feeling like it came out of nowhere. Also, the epilogue goes a long way to kind of justifying the blood bathier aspects of the book, giving details from an overall perspective of the results of the Idiran-Culture war. The book doesn't sugar coat the costs of this type of conflict, which is kind of refreshing in space opera.
Not the place to start the series, but not a bad effort overall.